Lorraine Bahr

A visit with: Phyllis Yes

With her new play "Good Morning, Miss America," the well-known feminist visual artist turns her talents toward the stage

How refreshing to be reminded that sometimes an artist is an artist is an artist, no matter her chosen medium and despite our own reductive need to “frame” her as just ONE thing. This is most definitely the case with the multi-faceted contemporary visual artist Phyllis Yes, who also happens to be a fine and gifted playwright.

Her debut play, Good Morning, Miss America, premieres at CoHo Theatre on Saturday, March 10. The show tackles some tough issues, namely the psychological and logistical challenges of caring for ailing and aging parents who have lost their autonomy and ability to care safely for themselves. It features a crack cast including Lorraine Bahr, Rick Sadle, Jane Fellows (who also directs) and Kelly Marchant. With set design by Tim Stapleton and light design by Jamie Rea, the show promises to be top-notch.

Visual artist and playwright Phyllis Yes. Photo: Heaven MacArthur

Theater rehearsals are generally closed affairs, but I was lucky enough to sit in on one for Good Morning, Miss America at McCoy Millworks during the end of the third week of the process. I arrived in time to watch the industrious Fellows and the production stage manager, Annie Bosworth-Foley, prepare the space for rehearsal. Shortly after, Yes arrived, followed by Bahr (whose character, Jane, is based on the real-life Phyllis) and Sadle, who portrays Phyllis’s real-life stepfather, Lou. Small talk ensued about the show, the particularly gnarly evening traffic, and the outcome of a Portland Trail Blazers game, a team Phyllis follows enthusiastically.

Continues…

Electric talk talk talk

Enda Walsh's "The New Electric Ballroom" at Third Rail Rep is a tall tale sailing on a torrent of language

Less than a minute into the opening speech of Enda Walsh’s sort-of comedy The New Electric Ballroom at Third Rail Rep I tucked my pen back into my pocket and gave up on the idea of taking notes: no way could I keep up with this thundering waterfall of words. “By their nature people are talkers,” says the spinster Breda, and talk talk talk they do, phrases tumbling and shooting and skipping and flying until your ears give up and run behind your back to hide. The gift of gab, the Irish call it, though at times you wonder – and I suspect Walsh does, too – if the gift isn’t just as much a curse.

The thing is, everybody talks in Electric Ballroom, but nobody talks with. It’s pretty much all speeches, ingrown toenail sorts of rants, in choreographed turns, and it takes a while to figure out who the choreographer is. At first you think it’s the youngest of the three sisters, Ada (Maureen Porter), who seems to be barking out odd orders like a stage manager under duress. You’re pretty sure it’s not Clara (Diana Kondrat), who speaks in elliptical staccato bursts, and is also the announcer of the obvious: “There’s a lull in the conversation,” she chirps at several pregnant pauses in the verbal onslaught, after some barb or another has landed a little too deep. Eventually the caller of the shots appears to be Breda (Lorraine Bahr), the one with the wicked past, at least in these cloistered and ritually embalmed sisters’ minds. But the truth is, not a one of ’em’s actually participated in life enough to have done anything wicked at all, except in their imaginations, which they use to turn on those torrents of language that become a sort of virtual reality, a made-up life that becomes the only life they really have. Sad’s the word for it, and it’s a word that’s short and not so sweet.

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Walsh is, of course, Irish (Third Rail also produced his play Penelope a few seasons back, which was directed, as Electric Ballroom is, by Philip Cuomo), and this contemporary play takes place in some isolated Irish village, a place with cliffs and docks and a seafood cannery, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and secrets are both open and long-lasting, sometimes for generations. It’s enough to make any escapee from the boonies to a bigger city shudder at the memory, although if you’ve read any of Tana French’s psychological crime novels set on the narrow-minded streets of Dublin, you might also wonder if the difference is all that big.

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Two queens were one too many in the fearfully dis-united kingdom of 16th century Britain. One, Elizabeth, had decided to return her country to the Protestantism her father Henry VIII had imposed on it. The other, Mary, favored the Catholicism that had reigned before Henry and still prevailed in most of the rest of Europe — including France, where she’d lived since childhood, safe from England’s wrenching back-and-forth religious wars, which left thousands dead with each shift of the political/religious winds.

Lorraine Bahr as Queen Elizabeth I (l) and Luisa Sermol as Mary, Queen of Scots in "Mary Stuart." Photo: Jack Wells.

Lorraine Bahr as Queen Elizabeth I (l) and Luisa Sermol as Mary, Queen of Scots in “Mary Stuart.” Photo: Jack Wells.

Rampant beheadings, massacres and purges in the name of seemingly minor doctrinal differences, terrorism… if all this sounds familiar, it’s because humans are depressingly slow to change our ways. Playwright Peter Oswald understands these parallels, and his adaptation of the great 19th century German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized version of the battle between the dueling queens crackles with contemporary vitality, which director Elizabeth Huffman channels into the most powerful theater production I’ve seen this year:  Cygnet Productions and Northwest Classical Theatre’s Mary Stuart.

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Good, and bad, and just people

David Lindsay-Abaire's "Good People" at Clackamas Rep has some spine beneath the laughter

In the opening to the David Lindsay-Abaire play Good People, we watch Margie, a single mother with a disabled adult daughter, talk with her young boss, Stevie, in the grimy alley behind the Dollar Store where they work. Amid the milk crates and the smelly Dumpster, citing her long history of chronic tardiness, he fires her. She gets defensive, then desperate. She tries bargaining, tries pointing the finger at other employees, tries appealing to his sympathies — all to no avail. By the end of the scene, her already meager life has become much more precarious.

And it’s a barrel of laughs.

“Oh, this is cute,” said a woman in the audience (repeatedly, at full conversational volume, during the scene) at Friday’s opening night performance by Clackamas Repertory Theatre.

Well, yes, in a way.

But then, no, not really.

Doren Elias and Lorraine Bahr in "Good People." Photo: Travis Nodurft

Doren Elias and Lorraine Bahr in “Good People.” Photo: Travis Nodurft

Good People, which earned Lindsay-Abaire a 2011 Tony nomination, appears at the outset to be a light comedy about the travails of working-class life. But it grows organically into a layered, nuanced examination of the ethical challenges involved in living the American Dream or in just getting by.

Getting by isn’t easy for Margie Walsh, played here by Lorraine Bahr with a thick, coarse South Boston accent and a weary, nervous laugh. “She’s funny!,” exclaimed the aforementioned woman in the audience (again repeatedly, at full conversational volume, during the scene — and hardly the only one in the crowd with this habit). And yes, she sure is. Lindsay-Abaire has written Margie as a mouthy sort, good-natured but quick with a barb, and Bahr brings her colorfully to life, her slouchy gait a mixture of weariness and determination, the glimmer in her eye a ready charm.

Funny as it is, from the outset Bahr’s performance has subtly darker emotional shadings that suggest the deeper considerations Lindsay-Abaire has in store. On opening night, though, the tonal shifts meant to get us to those deeper levels took a while to take effect, and it was hard to tell if that was because director David Smith-English had let the generally strong performances by Cyndy Smith-English and Amanda Valley as Margie’s pals veer a touch too close to sitcom broadness, or if the audience was too intent on laughing on to notice. (Yes, yes, it’s a comedy; that doesn’t mean yucks are its raison d’etre. Then again, no one made me the Amusement Police.)

Margie’s desperation leads her to look up an old friend/flame, Mike, a fellow Southie who has escaped the hardscrabble Boston neighborhood to earn a career as a reproductive endocrinologist and a home in affluent Chestnut Hill. At first she just hopes he might have a job for her, or that he knows someone who might. Seeing such prospects as remote, her friend Jean suggests that Margie instead “do a Maury Povich on him”: That is, tell the doctor that her daughter wasn’t born premature, a claim which would put the time of the child’s conception within the brief window that Margie and Mike had dated as teens. In any case, a visit to Chestnut Hill (tastefully rendered in Chris Whitten’s scenic design) — and Mike’s decidedly upper-class black wife, Kate — brings all sorts of secrets into play.

Mike is in some ways a stand-in for Lindsay-Abaire himself, who grew up in Southie but got a scholarship to a suburban prep school, then went on to Sarah Lawrence College, Juilliard and, eventually, a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for the play Rabbit Hole. The doctor is a sympathetic character, quite justifiably discomfited by the sudden reappearance of his past, with all of Margie’s  manipulations and insinuations — most damning of which is the notion that he’s ashamed of his Southie roots and has become “all lace-curtain Irish now.”

Unlike the playwright, the doctor believes he’s achieved his station solely through his own hard work. Margie points out that he had advantages and breaks that others didn’t.

Good People is about social class in America, certainly, but that subject serves more as frame than a theme, while Lindsay-Abaire provokes thoughts about ambition, identity, loyalty, charity, honesty, choice, responsibility and so on. And while he’s too good a writer to make anyone a paragon on any count, there’s no irony implied in the play’s title.

While Bahr is the production’s vibrant center, Doren Elias, alternately classy, cagey and hotly indignant as Mike, and Damaris Webb, sugar-coated mettle as Kate, serve as worthy foils; and Sam Levi as Stevie, the Dollar Store middle-manager, provides an additional glimpse of Southie character, with no whiff of caricature.

In the end, everyone’s predicaments and choices ring true. And that counts for a lot more than cute.